Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Siamese B-sides

I think I’ve maybe written a blurb or at least given a shout out to Smashing Pumpkins' crowning achievement (at least in my eyes), Siamese Dream, somewhere on this blog. I’ll say again, if I haven’t already, that Siamese Dream is a seminal album of the 90s, of alternative music in general and most certainly of my late adolescence/young adulthood. One of my closest friends ever, Kevin, was a HUGE Smashing Pumpkins fan, obsessed might be a good word for it, and waited with ravenous expectation for each release (I might be exaggerating a bit, but he really did get excited). I remember when he picked up the Cherub Rock single on a weekend visit to Tallahassee and we drove around town in his ’84 Dodge 600 playing it over and over again. By the end of the day we knew every word, every guitar lick and every drum fill. I can still see him beating the opening build up on the steering wheel as we sat in traffic, getting as worked up and energetic as he was the first time he’d heard it and by then it was at least the twentieth. Such is the power of a good song. Or obsession. Take your pick, but judge not.

Again, this was a single, so there was more than just Cherub Rock itself, and Smashing Pumpkins has always been excellent about putting out quality b-sides along with their single releases. Knowing what I do now about the making of this album, there were loads of difficulties and setbacks, a major one being Billy Corgan’s writer’s block. Hearing the end result you’d never know such a thing were possible, and then to get your hands on the singles with more than a couple of b-sides each, it’s quite obvious that once the creative juices began flowing, they could hardly be contained.

At any rate, below are a handful of my favorites from that era…

Pissant (Cherub Rock) – What I love about this song – 1) The name, ‘cos it’s a great word and it’s what my dad used to call people who frustrated him (I got called a pissant a lot). 2) The drums, ‘cos they’re simple but aggressively insistent and there’s a great flange on the hi-hat. 3) The breakdown, especially “ba-by…” around the 1:50 mark. 4) The ride out, particularly the (possible) ad lib remark, “It’s a motherf*cker….” And as much as I love this song, its angst, its pure rockability, I can see why it’s not on the album, ‘cos while it certainly comes from the same parentage that birthed Siamese Dream, it’s like the surly cousin who sulks in the corner during the family reunion and leaves as soon as dinner is over. It’s rough, rowdy and completely raw.

Hello Kitty Kat (Today) – Another solid rocker, this one is truly a forgotten gem amongst the SP catalog and one of Billy’s finest moments. It would have fit perfectly amongst everything on Siamese Dream save for one slight problem…it plays with much similarity to Quiet at the beginning of the set and Geek U.S.A. near the end of the middle, and both of these are the two most straight up rock songs on the album. (But if you like either or both of those songs, this one is all for you.) I can’t imagine the album being laid out any other way, as far as the loud-quiet-loud factor goes, and I can’t imagine the album without either of these two tracks, and so the incestuous similarity of Hello Kitty Kat makes in the perfect song that must unfortunately be relegated to b-side status. But that's ok, it still shines!

Obscured (Today) – A breezy, mellow affair, with Obscured Billy wears his classic rock sensibilities on his sleeve, and in this case that's detrimental. Not to the song, no not in the least, as this is one of their most openly intimate and truly magical numbers, and I dearly love the dually contrasted lead guitars going on in separate speakers. The problem is that, as with Pissant, this song just doesn’t fit the overall vibe of the album, perhaps the whimsical half-dazed aunt whom everyone loves but don’t quite know how to approach or talk to. And that’s a shame because Obscured is yet another lost landmark in the Smashing Pumpkins’ play list, a lovely, meandering lullaby that could almost work as an album closer, especially with the guitar hum ending, but because it’s impossible to think of Siamese Dream ending any other way than with the 1-2 soft sighs of Sweet Sweet and Luna, Obscured follows its name and simply closes out the Today single…making that release one of the best 3-song collections in rock music.

French Movie Theme (Cherub Rock) – This isn’t really a proper song but just a bit of fiddling about in the studio. And yet there is some lush beauty to be found within this less than two minutes of strummed guitar, tinkling piano, understated trap set and “Yeah-yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…,” with Billy’s whispering “bonjour” a haunting delight and a reason to let the CD single play out (and back around again). But what’s more, this was one of the first “experimental” tracks my then young mind had heard and it opened my eyes to the further possibilities within music, and the idea of saying much by saying little and allowing the listener to fill in the spaces left by the lack of instrumentation. I’m not sure that’s what the Pumpkins had in mind when this came out, but that’s certainly what I took from it.

A cool thing about these songs, save French Movie Theme, is that they can be found on the stop gap (almost) catch all, Pisces Iscariot, which pulls together not only these (and other) key b-sides from Siamese Dream, but a couple or so outtakes from the album, plus a couple of b-sides from Gish and some stray tracks from Peel Sessions and the Lull EP. I almost just did an out and out review of that collection itself, if for no other reason than to mention the lovely Starla and the rockin’ Plume, but I just did that so we’re all good. You should probably go pick it up anyway.

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